Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Open education

There is a decent piece from Peter Scott here about higher education policy that gets to the nub of the problem with the reforms to university funding.
The interesting thing about policy is not the measures themselves, but the assumptions underlying them. Applying that test, the government's higher education reforms are anything but. They are rooted in a view of a university education common no doubt in prosperous London-land, but profoundly reactionary – as a bourgeois lifestyle choice rather than career-changing improvement, as validation rather than aspiration.
Scott's critique, though, is not a very radical one either. His argument for state funding through general taxation, rather than the hypothecated graduate tax, which the loan and repayment scheme really is, is based on the utility of higher education as an instrument of national prosperity. In making this case, he is also engaging with a limited, and somewhat conservative, model of higher education.

The one strength in the Government's case for the new fees regime for universities is that there is an inequity in asking those who never benefit as individuals to pay, through general taxation, for a middle class perk that would, in turn, give real individual rewards to those who get qualifications. A similar argument has been used about state funding for the arts. Why should the private pleasures of the elite receive public funding? The counter argument usually made centres on the collateral benefits of elite activities, both in culture and economics. For instance, the defence of a publicly funded higher education is that there is a collective economic gain in having an educated workforce. There is obviously some truth in this, but try asking an unemployed person whether they benefit from the fact that the clerk processing their claim has a 2.2 in sociology. I find more than a hint of sophistry here; what exists is of value simply because it exists.

In both cases, the wrong question is being asked. Instead we should be asking why these are elite pursuits in the first place, rather than being open and accessible to everyone. And this leads me to a tediously familiar subject, adult education. Adult education in universities was one way in which the university could be something other than a middle class diploma factory and instead become a resource for the entire community. It was different and, in lots of ways, pointed to another possibility, universities open to all; comprehensive rather than selective institutions. High level research and top class professional training could easily co-exist with an open campus, short courses, community outreach and part-time delivery. And the same applies to the arts. If there was one thing running through the rather earnest mission of the adult education movement from its earliest days, it was the notion that excellence was available to all, that high art could be popular art. The assumption behind current policy is that neither are capable of change from being a permanent elite ghetto.

This is what a genuinely radical reform could look like, moving lifelong learning from the margins to the centre of the university mission, not bringing in another formula based on a complacent acceptance of the status quo, with bureaucratised plans for wider access floating around at the margins. It would mean profound institutional change and, if the university was an open door instead of a gated community, its pleas about funding would have far greater purchase.

Instead, we are witnessing adult education's lingering death and with it goes hopes for something more inspiring for our universities.

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